Panelists discuss context of Syrian refugee crisis

Event explores political tensions leading to crisis in Syria, global responses that have followed

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Political posturing is responsible for the Syrian refugee crisis, said Stephen Kinzer, senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, beginning a discussion of the crisis with an overview of the tensions that led to the international sociopolitical turmoil.

The hour-long discussion covered the causes of the crisis, conditions of Syrian refugees in various countries and current global responses. The panel featured Kinzer, Sarah Tobin, professor of Middle East studies, and Westy Egmont, associate professor of macro practice at Boston College.

Kinzer said that before the scheduled 2014 United Nations conference in Geneva, U.S. leaders urged the UN Secretary-General to retract Iran’s invitation. As a result, the conference never took place. “Everything that has happened in the last two years, and every refugee that has had to flee, and every Syrian that has died is, in part, a result of that political decision,” Kinzer said.

“We are willing to put up with endless human suffering. It was more important for us to keep Iran out of the negotiating room for abstract political reasons than it was to save the lives of ordinary human beings,” he added.

Tobin touched on climate change, mentioning the deforestation and desertification of the region as a cause of the refugee crisis. “Southern Syria, what was considered the breadbasket of the nation, has largely been emptied because of climate change,” Tobin said. Over 1.5 million Syrians were displaced, died or lost their farms as a result of the upheaval Syria faced, she added.

The panelists criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for providing no protection for his people. Neither ISIS nor economic troubles are driving Syrians out of their homeland, Tobin said. “Assad’s regime is committing really terrible acts against its own people,” she added.

Egmont said a quarter of a million people have been killed by the Syrian government. “When you begin to think about half of a population of a country having lost their home, it’s so massive it begins to defy reason or understanding of finding any easy solution,” he added.

Panelists noted that countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Germany have largely accepted Syrian refugees. They agreed that the United States has the capacity to take in at least 100,000 refugees.

Rep. David Ciciline, D-RI, pushed for that number in a letter he penned to President Obama, Ciciline told The Herald. This letter was signed by more than 70 members of Congress and urged Obama to “resettle a minimum of 200,000 refugees by the end of 2016, including 100,000 Syrian refugees.”

Egmont emphasized that any reluctance to accept refugees does not stem from economic or geographical limits. The United States is capable of accepting a large influx of refugees, he said.

“We’re not prepared psychologically or politically for a large refugee inflow from the Middle East or anywhere,” Kinzer said. “We are an immigrant-resistant country despite the fact that we are a nation of immigrants.” 

Egmont said, “I take a conservative view, which is that there are 59 million refugees in the world. There is a very long line of people that are coming through that pipe, and I don’t think Syrians get to the front of the line.” The United States must respect long-term commitments to other countries in need, such as Kenya, he said.

Both Tobin and Ciciline recently visited refugee camps in Jordan. During the panel, Tobin displayed images of the refugee camps, showing the difficult conditions refugees endure. Ciciline said his trip “underscored the enormity of the crisis. … Thousands of refugees want to return home and resume their lives.”

Tobin told The Herald that there is reluctance to accept as many refugees as the country is capable of because of “fear that they’re going to be a drain, fear that they’re going to be a security threat in particular. It’s fear-driven,” she said.

Ciciline is confident in the public’s readiness to accept refugees and has received no pushback in Congress or from his constituents. “We must be consistent with our values as a country,” he said.

Physicians for Human Rights, the Refugee Health Preclinical Elective and the Global Health Scholarly Concentration sponsored the event.